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Interview: The Fever Machine

"I just took a ride in a silver machine. And I'm still feeling mean." Extended talk with Dan Shapiro of The Fever Machine.
2012-11-22 14:35:46

Big dick-swinging rock 'n' roll three-piece The Fever Machine are kicking out their new vinyl release La Chupacabra, out now on Beijing's Genjing Records. A definite highlight of Shanghai's live music circuit, this is your jam if you like classic doom metal riff-raff-age, retrogazing psychedelic excursions, and smokey garage rock stomp. Chart hits from the BONG.

Check out this slick vid they've made for the title track:

Fever Machine lead mustache Dan Shapiro has been something of a pillar of the local music scene in Shanghai for the past five years or so, both as a frontman in a few Shanghai bands of significant merit (The Fever Machine, The Rogue Transmission, Horror Business) and as a rock show promoter behind some of that city's better live music events -- the Halloween shows, the Get in the Van shows, Fever Machine and Friends -- bunch of stuff, really. SmartShanghai took the opportunity of this new record, and an upcoming show next Saturday night at Yuyintang to do a kind of state of the union-type of interview with Dan on Shanghai and China rock music.

And don't miss next Saturday's show at YYT. First 250 people through the door get a free copy of the new record. Support from Spill Your Guts and Banana Monkey. Here's an older one to warm us up.

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SmSh: So maybe to start with, could you introduce the band. For people who haven't heard your music, what sort of beast is it?

Dan Shapiro: Sure. The Fever Machine is a true power trio. I sing lead vocals and handle the guitars. Fabien rocks the low end on four-string bass, and Miggs keeps the rhythms tight on drums; they both sing some backing vocals.

For the most part our music is really heavy, psychedelic rock in the vein of '70s proto metal. Lot’s of sludgy in-the-pocket tempos, stoner rock, but we mix it up with some metal, hard rock, even some punky garage tracks.

Lately we’ve gotten more into off-kilter time signatures, tempo changes, and pretty vocal melodies, but our riffs are always heavier then hell.

SmSh: What sorts of influences do you trace in your music from wherever -- other bands, books, movies...

DS: There’s the obvious ones like Black Sabbath, Kyuss, Hawkwind, but it was never our intention to sound like other bands.

I guess Aleister Crowley and Hunter S. Thompson would be some literary influences.

Of course mind expansion and experimentation have always been a part of our music too. Better living through chemistry, you know…

SmSh: Whats the story with the new record?

DS: Well, La Chupacabra is a 7” vinyl; A-side and B-side, like the old days.

In addition to the title track, there’s another song on there called Careful What You Wish For.

The recording and production of this release is a bit ridiculous; sort of a clusterfuck. We tracked everything in Shanghai before shipping the raw files off to Graba Estudio in Quito, Ecuador; the same place we mixed our full length Living In Oblivion in 2011.

Xavi Muller mixed everything in Quito and then we had Alan Douches, who mastered Mastodon’s Leviathan and Baroness’s Blue Record, master everything at West West Side Music in New York.

From there, the tracks went to some vinyl pressing plant in the Czech Republic for production.

We actually released both tracks for free download on November 19, or “name your price” if you feel so inclined, via Bandcamp, and the vinyl will be distributed to California, Ecuador, Germany, and Greater China by Genjing Records and some other contacts we’ve made.

The whole process began in late February, and we’re capping off La Chupacabra with a pair of release shows, November 24 at Temple Bar in Beijing and December 1 at Yuyintang in Shanghai, where we’ll be giving out hella free vinyl.

SmSh: How did you get hooked up with Genjing Records in Beijing?

DS: I’ve known Nevin from Genjing for years. He’s always been supportive of our band and previous projects. When he started Genjing he approached me about a release. It was a real no-brainer to work together.

He’s the only label rep I’ve ever worked with in a decade of making rock records and it’s been a really solid experience -- just a bunch of people making records for the right reasons and getting the songs out to a bigger audience, putting this shit on the map!

SmSh: So you did a lot of overseas mixing and mastering. Why did you seek out people to work with overseas? What was the mastering process like?

DS: We mixed in Ecuador and mastered in the US, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

The honest truth is that China just doesn’t posses the gear and ears to handle our sound, so we went elsewhere to achieve the sound we always envisioned. Alan has worked with a lot of bands in our genre and he has hundreds of releases to his credit, so he really brought a super professional ear and tons of experience to the table. He listened to our mixes and just intrinsically knew what to do.

Some people just have “it,” and he’s definitely one of them.

SmSh: This is your first vinyl release -- how important is the format of vinyl to you guys? Do you have a specific emotional / aesthetic investment in the medium?

DS: Yea, for sure. Releasing on vinyl is really an amazing feeling. I’ve been collecting records since I was in college, buying used Aerosmith, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Stones and Pink Floyd albums.

Vinyl kind of went out of mass production for a while when CDs ruled, but it seems that wax has come back during the mp3 age.

Our last release was on CD, so it’s nice to mix it up. Plus vinyl just looks and feels nice. Even if people don’t have record players, the 7” a nice collectible and they can always download the tracks, although the songs are mastered differently for vinyl.

It’s sort of a “medium is the message” kind of thing. So I guess I should include Marshall McLuhan in that literary influence question.

SmSh: How does this one build off, or break from your previous release, Living in Oblivion?

DS: This sort of picks up right after “Don Pedro” from Living In Oblivion and this is really our sound coming to fruition.

From the time we started the band until now, there’s a clear evolution and growth from a more riff rock / garage rock sound to a more psychedelic / stoner sound.

“Don Pedro” was the last song we wrote on the first album and that really was us coming into our own, so La Chupacabra is us at our peak.

SmSh: Although Fever Machine has only been around for a few years in Shanghai, you yourself have been playing music in other bands in this city a while now... How do you describe the music in Shanghai to people back in the States?

DS: This is a completely loaded question. I’m just bound to piss some people off here.

Personally, I paid my dues in the US. Miggs paid his dues in Ecuador, and Fabi in France.

We all have the experience of playing in completely independent touring bands in our home countries and slugging it out in vans, playing for the bartender the other bands on the bill, and a few drunks hurling obscenities, and occasionally cinder blocks, from the back of the room.

Those are the experiences that really build character, and bands in Shanghai don’t have to go through that because, while we really only have a couple venues, they’re generally packed, have very good backline gear and receptive audiences.

Overall though, I’d say live music in Shanghai is much better than 2007 when I moved here.

SmSh: Whats the reception for the kind of music you play in Shanghai? Do you guys fit into a larger scene of bands or more on the side doing you own thing?

DS: We are mostly left to our own devices. We’re too heavy for the indie and punk bands, and too melodic for the metal crowd.

I don’t think most people really get what we’re doing, and we’re not trying to be a fan favorite, but still we manage to turn some heads and captivate some earholes.

SmSh: It seems like Shanghai has a huge amount of foreign presence in the local music community there. How does that impact the scene?

DS: You trying to bait me into making some angry laowai statement?

Look, save Duck Fight Goose, Banana Monkey, Chaos Mind, and lately NaoHai, there really aren’t any Shanghainese bands doing much. Shanghai is really trying to emerge as a glamorous, cosmopolitan hub, so it’s no surprise that local kids don’t really aspire to make records, play shows, tour, and really live for this kind of shit.

Foreigners in Shanghai really never know how long they’re gonna be around, so why not start a band, write some songs, and see where it goes.

Five years ago Shanghai was really a three-horse town with Boys Climbing Ropes, The Dropkicks, and The Rogue Transmission. Now you have The Fever Machine, Pairs, and Rainbow Danger Club booking international tours and releasing across the globe. That’s a huge contribution to Shanghai’s overall musical climate and landscape.

Still, you have to credit guys like Zhang HaiSheng and Lu at YYT who are running the venues and giving us a place to play live. They’re really the godfathers of the whole thing.

SmSh: So what direction is music in Shanghai taking these days, speaking as someone who's been there to experience a lot of it? Are you overall positive or negative about the music coming out of this city?

DS: Again, you’re setting me up, bro.

I’m completely manic on this shit. Sometimes up, sometimes down.

I guess since we’re in a good place with the release I’m pretty optimistic at the moment.

November and December will be pretty fruitful months for Shanghai bands with us, Rainbow Danger Club, Round Eye, Friend or Foe, Naohai, and Pairs all putting out albums. Death to Giants also just hit up the studio, so lots of things for people to listen forward to.

SmSh: What are your impressions of the music coming out of Beijing? Do you pay attention to what goes on there? And do you trace Chinese rock music influences from anywhere in your music?

DS: I must say that I’ve been paying less and less attention to what’s coming out of Beijing since the pinnacle year of 2008.

When the Maybe Mars thing first started going on there was a lot of good buzz. A lot of bands putting out interesting albums: Joyside, PK 14, Carsick Cars, SMZB, Demerit, Snapline... But it seems like everything peaked and the talent pool there dried up a bit.

There’s still plenty of good bands coming out of Beijing, but the real hype has died down, which is probably good for the real genuine creativity and artistry of the music.

Lately I’ve been super impressed with Bad Mamasan, who we played with at the DazeFeast in June, and the two bands we’re playing with at Temple in Beijing on November 24: Devils at the Crossroads and Never Before. Those are bands that don’t give a fuck about fuck all and just want to get on stage and rip their tunes; same as The Fever Machine.

The experience of living in China has found its way into our music a bit, mostly through the use of noise and feedback, but that’s about it. Well, lyrically there are a few sentiments of China, but you’d have to buy the physical release of Living in Oblivion to get those.

SmSh: You've had the chance to play in several cities in China. Which are the best places to play and why?

DS: The best experiences probably occur in the most random places, usually because we’re the first band people have heard that sound anything like us.

We played a sort of town fair in Rizhao, Shandong in 2011, and the people just ate that shit up. Tons of kids that completely mobbed us afterward, and people actually followed us around all night and kept feeding us random shellfish. This was like three weeks after the Fukushima reactor blew, so eating clams 1,800 km from a destroyed power plant perhaps wasn’t the wisest idea.

But for every great, random experience in China, there’s always an unexpected blunder.

Touring during the 2010 World Cup was a mess. After booking a handful of shows months in advance, bars started calling up telling us we had to play for free from 8-8:30pm to accommodate the soccer crowd. That shit was pretty uncool, so we actually played part of a set in Nanjing seated on our monitors watching soccer with our backs to the crowd.

SmSh: You've also had the chance to play in several festivals -- Midi, Modern Sky, Strawberry -- what's been you experience like on that front. Do you think festivals are a good place to showcase your music?

DS: The bigger festivals in Shanghai and Beijing have actually been really good to us. We’ve been fortunate to have good slots and play for large crowds who’ve been receptive.

We completely ripped at the 2011 Shanghai MIDI festival, and earlier this year we caused a bit of a stir on Shanghainese TV when we got the entire crowd to chant cao mei over and over again. It might mean Strawberry, but there’s another more deviant and penetrating meaning, so the authorities had no choice other than to cut off my mic for a minute until the crowd died down.

The things I’ll do to amuse myself . . .

Honestly, I was never much of a fan of festivals until we started playing them, but our sound fits the big stage. The louder we are, the better we sound, and we’re not timid guys, so handling a big stage comes second nature.

The smaller festivals in China are really a crap shoot though; there are a lot of shows that are billed as festivals, but they’re really nothing more than poorly planned outdoor gigs.

We played in Yangshuo in December 2011 to about 40 people in 3-degree weather. The town is absolutely beautiful and we’d definitely go back if the promoter wants us again, but it’s a bit difficult to play guitar when you can’t feel your fingers.

SmSh: A lot of people are critical of the sameness of music festival line-ups here -- what's your impressions on that?

DS: I think it’s fair to be critical of that, but the truth is, there’s only so many bands here that are able to really handle those gigs; plus promoters like to help the bands they’ve cultivated -- MIDI and Modern Sky have their own rosters of talent.

From 2008 to 2010, promoters wanted nothing to do with foreigner bands in China; their agenda was to push local talent; fair enough. But then people started being critical of the repeated lineups and we actually benefited a lot from that. All of a sudden we’re being billed as an American band or a French band and getting sweet slots because it’s easier and cheaper to book us then some third rate band from Luxembourg.

I can’t really bite the hand that feeds on that one.

SmSh: In your experience, what are the big hurdles and problems with touring in China? And generally speaking, what hurdles and / or difficulties have you experienced with being in a band in China?

DS: The biggest hurdle is that no one wants to go to shows, or promote them, Sunday to Thursday, so touring really becomes weekend trips to various places. It's convenient since I’ve always been in bands with guys that work nine-to-fives, but that makes full-scale tours near impossible.

Gigs sometimes get cancelled, occasionally a club will add some shitty student surprise band at the last minute, and there are times when the gear is well below standard, but the show must go on.

There’s also just a lack of interest from the public. Like seriously, how the fuck do you promote a Friday night show in Changsha when you’ve never been there? The bar will put your poster up, but they won’t do anything else to get people there. They’ll put it on Weibo where it falls on blind ears and deaf eyes, and so that leaves Douban, which seems to be a dying platform.

Also, there’s a huge divide between people interested in playing guitar and people interested in music and going to shows, whereas in the west those two groups really converge.

There are tons of really ripping guitar players in China who are really into technical shredding and hanging out on online forums like Guitar China. But that interest doesn’t translate into a curiosity for writing music, doing their own thing, and starting a band; it’s just a hobby to them. So the concept of going to check out an unknown band doesn’t even cross their minds.

Regardless, we’ve toured to a shit-ton of places and no matter the turn out, we always have a blast and put on some semblance of a rock show. We do this because we love to, and hopefully people will show up and dig our sound too.

SmSh: What’s the commercial climate like for a young band in China?

DS: Commercial climate? It’s like you think we’re playing Calvin Klein fashion shows or something.

[Ed's Note: Shapiro is referencing the fact that this interviewer, in another life, played a Calvin Klein cologne launch event and is absolutely unrepentant about it. Christmas is coming up everyone. Why not pop "CK Free" on your lists for Santa? Ka-ching.]

There really is no commercial climate.

Often times people will hear that we’re in a band and offer us shows at corporate events. Then they hear our music and realize that we’re not a good fit.

Still, people will ask us, “Oh, can you do a 50 minute swing set?” or “Can you play an acoustic set using traditional Chinese instruments in the Hutongs?”

Fuck no, we can’t.

We love playing music, but we play our music, our way. That’s what gets us hard and going, and that’s they way being in a rock band should be.

SmSh: A common criticism in English-language press is that Chinese bands are overly derivative of Western bands. What's your two cents on that argument?

DS: There’s only 12 notes in the western musical scale man, and oh so many effects pedals you can use to create new sounds, so in a lot of ways, most music these days no matter where it's from is derivative of something else.

But feelings and expressions, that’s what’s unique.

I don’t think The Fever Machine has gone beyond any boundaries sonically. We fit somewhere in the rock / metal milieu, but our tunes are true and honest. They’re vignettes of our grimy existence, and that’s unique, that’s special.

SmSh: I understand you did a brief North American tour last summer. What was the reception like for the band? Is the music you play on point with what's going on in the States these days?

DS: Well, before we played in California, we played in South America, in Quito, Ecuador, where we were actually kind of a big hit at the country’s largest festival.

Once people got over the fact that we weren’t Chinese -- the promoters had us down as a Chinese band so people were expecting some Chinese-looking dudes -- they went pretty mental for us.

We were on the front page of the country’s biggest newspaper, on TV, and a grip of radio stations. Actually, a big part of our existing fanbase is currently, or at one time was, Ecuadorian.

Afterward we went to play a couple shows in LA and San Francisco with varying results.

LA was a blast; packed bar with people really into it. We played with this rad band called Sassafras, and that’s the first time I can remember us playing with a band that suited us sonically.

The show actually went so well that we were invited to record in a studio called Downtown Sound the following night with these dudes Lightning Woodcock and Philco, real heshers. The recording didn’t end up being released, but there was definitely some kinship between us and the Downtown LA locals.

We weren’t a huge hit in San Francisco, but I think that’s more because we weren’t on the right bill for our sound; we played with a lo-fi garage band and voodoo blues trio. Plus the herb out there was just too good so our set was kind of half-baked.

SmSh: Are you planing more tours overseas?

DS: At the moment no, but we may resurface for a show or two in California in 2013.

SmSh: What's next for the band?

DS: That is very difficult to say at this time.

The release of La Chupacabra and the shows at Temple and YYT are what we’re concentrating on for now, anything beyond that is very uncertain.

We’ve all sort of had some interesting and exciting developments in our personal lives that might make staying together impossible, so for anyone that’s ever been interested in seeing us, seen us and wanted some more, or just likes some heavy stoney rock, I’d recommend coming to these shows.

I’m not saying this is the end. I’m just saying...


Link-o-ramma: Main page; Facebook; Douban.

The Fever Machine rips up Yuyintang next Saturday night, December 1, for the release of their 7" La Chupacabra, with special guests Banana Monky and Spill Your Guts. First 250 people through the door get a free 7". 50rmb. Stars 9:30pm